My former students might recall my constant characterization of U. S. History as the story of a people’s ongoing struggle to accommodate two contradictory concepts: equality and liberty. (Wait… You took my class but only remember the session I always did on classic on-the-fly verbal comebacks made by the likes of Churchill, Twain, and Dorothy Parker when they had been insulted in public? Ah, the lot of the teacher…)
Anyway… Although we Americans are quite fond of speaking of those two concepts in the same breath — e.g., “…with liberty and justice for all.” — we rarely stop to think about the fact that they actually mean the opposite of each other. Measures taken to bolster the one inevitably result in curtailing the other.
Time to re-balance.
In a New York Times article last week, Dr. Jared Baeten, an epidemiologist at U. Washington School of Public Health, was quoted to say, “As an American, I think there is a lot of good to be said about our libertarian tradition. But this is the consequence — we don’t succeed as well as a collective.” (See “The Unique U.S. Failure to Control the Virus” – 8/7/20)
Thomas Friedman might well regard Dr. Baeten as too generous. In a piece titled “If Our Masks Could Speak” (7/28/20), he asks, “How did we get so inept?” He later observes, “Resisting wearing a mask in a pandemic is nothing more than selfish, libertarian nonsense masquerading as a comic-book defense of freedom: ‘Don’t tread on me, but I can breathe on you.'”
Even Rolling Stone magazine weighs in with an article by Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis. (See “The Unraveling of America” – 8/8/20) Davis puts a cause-to-pause spin on the above writers when he quotes an Irish Times article: “For more than two centuries the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U. S. until now: pity.”
Wade continues, “Covid-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken. As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease… The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock…”
He even shoves a bit of salt into the wound when he echoes a social media joke that has been making the rounds of his own countrymen and women: “To live in Canada today is like owning an apartment above a meth lab.” Ouch!
Equality and liberty can be very difficult concepts to balance. At the moment, we’re not doing a very good job of it. When my kids were young, it was not uncommon to hear one of them say to each other — full disclosure: Yes, sometimes to me…– “You’re not the boss of me!” It’s one thing for young kids to say it. It’s another thing for adults say it… especially while not wearing a mask.